What is an Autoimmune Disorder?
In autoimmune disorders, the immune system fails to recognize and attacks the body's own cells and tissues. This can cause a wide variety of different symptoms depending on which part of the body is being affected. There are many different diseases which are classed as autoimmune, but some of the most common are:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Myasthenia gravis
- Hashimoto's thyroiditis
- Graves' disease
- Type I diabetes
- Addison's disease
- Inflammatory bowel disease
The symptoms of these conditions vary greatly, but there are also some common features. Many autoimmune disorders cause inflammation of some sort, and many follow a pattern of relapse and remission.
It is unclear why some people develop autoimmune disorders. What we do know is that they are more common in women than men, indicating that hormones may play a role. There also appears to be genetic factor as some autoimmune disorders run in families. Some people develop an autoimmune disorder following a physical or emotional trauma such as an infection, surgery or prolonged stress.
How Does Acupuncture Help with Autoimmune Disorders?
Acupuncture is a branch of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). It works by inserting ultra-fine needles at certain points on the body to promote physical and emotional balance, maintain health and treat disease.
It is particularly good for reducing inflammation, relieving pain, improving sleep and energy, and supporting emotional well-being. These are all things which can help if you are suffering from an autoimmune disease.
Because conventional treatment methods for autoimmune disorders are so limited, acupuncture can offer a welcome alternative approach. In order to fully understand how acupuncture can help with autoimmune disorders, we need to take a look at how TCM views the immune system and autoimmune disease.
The Immune System in Traditional Chinese Medicine
The closest thing that TCM has to an immune system is something called “defensive qi” or “wei qi”. This circulates on the exterior of the body, providing a barrier between you and the outside world. If you have strong enough wei qi, you should be able to easily fend off an attack of pathogenic wind. If not, then you are at risk of falling ill.
All types of qi, including wei qi are formed in the same way. The Lungs take in oxygen from the air. This combines with nutrients from food which have been broken down by the digestive organs, the Stomach and Spleen. Finally, these mix with our “original qi”, inherited from our parents and stored by the Kidneys.
So having strong, healthy wei qi depends on the health of these four organs, the Lungs, Stomach, Spleen and Kidneys. A weakness in any one of these can result in weakened wei qi, and poor immunity.
Autoimmune Disorders in Traditional Chinese Medicine
One theory about how autoimmune disorders develop from a TCM point of view is that an underlying deficiency of wei qi allows a pathogen to enter and remain in the body.
According to TCM, when a pathogen invades, it needs to be expelled by your body before you can return to health. If you have an underlying weakness in your wei qi, not only will you be more prone to attacks, but you will also find them more difficult to fight off.
If you are unable to expel a pathogen effectively, it will remain in your system where it can begin to cause imbalances. Over time, the pathogen becomes deeply lodged and more difficult to expel.
Ongoing pathogenic invasions can block the free flow of qi and blood, leading to stagnation. This results in symptoms such as inflammation, pain and stiffness. Eventually, this pathogen begins to spread, affecting the balance between yin and yang within the body and stopping the organs from functioning as they should.
This accounts for the wide variety of symptoms seen in autoimmune disorders. It just depends which organs are being affected.
The Role of Stress in Autoimmune Disorders
If you have an autoimmune disease with a pattern of relapse and remission, you will know that you are more likely to experience flare-ups if you are stressed.
It is well known that physical, emotional and environmental stress can all have a major impact on your health. Stress affects the nervous system, the digestive system, the endocrine system and the immune system.
TCM theory also places great importance on the role of stress. As we have already discussed, the six evils are seen as external causes of disease. Similarly, emotional imbalance is seen as an internal cause of disease and is equally important in the diagnosis and treatment of any illness.
Stress can prevent qi from flowing as smoothly as it should. This leads to blockage and stagnation in the same way that a pathogenic invasion can. This is why many people find that stress is a trigger for their autoimmune symptoms becoming worse.
The Gentle Way that Acupuncture Works to Balance the Autoimmune System
Acupuncture works for autoimmune disorders in a number of different ways.
Firstly, it can help you to expel any pathogenic factors which may be lingering in your system. This means that your body is ready to start the healing process and will not be hindered in any way.
Secondly, it helps to support your organs to function at their best. This means that any underlying weaknesses can be rectified. As well as improving your symptoms, your wei qi will also be strengthened, offering greater protection against future attacks.
Finally, acupuncture balances the emotions and relieves stress. This is important for avoiding flare-ups and keeping all of your biological systems working optimally.
Acupuncture does not introduce anything into your body, and it does not take anything away. What is does do is stimulate your body's own, natural healing abilities, allowing you to recover by yourself.
Because of the gentle way in which it works, it can take some time before you see any significant, lasting benefits from acupuncture. This is especially true in chronic conditions such as autoimmune disorders. However, if used regularly, acupuncture can offer a great solution, both to managing your symptoms and keeping flare-ups at bay.